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Peter Witte, dean of UMKC's Conservatory of Music and Dance, speaks during the Kansas City Public Library's Downtown Arts Campus discussion. Photo credit Janet Rogers, University Communications.

Panel Discusses Proposed Downtown Arts Campus

Panelists talk need and opportunity

Need and opportunity were two major themes during the Kansas City Public Library’s “A Vision of A Downtown Arts Campus” panel discussion.

The discussion gave the more than 200 attendees a chance to hear more about the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s proposed Downtown Arts Campus, which would bring UMKC’s renowned music, dance, theatre and visual arts programs into the heart of Kansas City.

The Downtown Arts Campus proposal garnered considerable attention when it was named by the Greater Kansas City Area Chamber of Commerce as one of its “Big Five Ideas” for Kansas City. Since then, UMKC has commissioned several in-depth impact studies on the project.

With each new study comes more detailed information on how a Downtown Arts Campus might economically and academically impact not just UMKC, but Kansas City as a whole. A proposal of this magnitude has many different layers – from the creation of new jobs to an enhanced student experience to a revitalized downtown. Rather than zero in on one aspect of the proposed campus, the evening’s three panelists emphasized the big picture.

Peter Witte, dean of UMKC’s Conservatory of Music and Dance, was one of the evening’s panelists. Under the proposed three-phase schedule, the Conservatory would be the first UMKC program to move downtown. The UMKC Theatre and the Kansas City Repertory Theatre would follow in the second phase, and the departments of Architecture, Urban Planning and Design; Art and Art History;Communications Studies; and KCUR Public Media would move in the third.

Witte said the new campus could address two major concerns: the Conservatory’s need for more space, and Kansas City’s desire to see major returns on its arts and cultural investments.

Witte’s contention, which was echoed and supported by the other panelists, was that a Downtown Arts Campus would place a permanent daytime population of hundreds of 18- to 35-year-old arts students, plus faculty and staff, in the midst of the urban core. That would provide a significant economic and cultural boost to Downtown Kansas City’s arts renaissance and complement major investments such as the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts and the Todd Bolender Center for Dance.

Panelist Jacqueline Chanda, president of the Kansas City Art Institute, cited the importance of artistic synergy, and the economic value that a burgeoning arts scene can bring to a city.

Her point was reiterated by Jerry Allen, a consultant with The Cultural Planning Group, who shared several examples of cities that have leveraged key artistic and cultural investments for maximum impact.

His first example: Paris, and the Eiffel Tower. He said the initial investment to build the tower --$43 million in today’s dollars – generated roughly $535 billion through tourism and job creation, among other things.

In the recently released Economic Impact Study of the Downtown Arts Campus, the Mid-America Regional Council estimated that the “level of economic activity associated with the construction of the arts campus and reuse of the Volker campus would average approximately 409 jobs, $30.8 million in real GDP, and $22.9 million in real disposable personal income.”

Of course, the idea that artistic synergy generates economic growth is nothing new. Both Chanda and Witte cited examples of cities that have benefitted from placing academic institutions near premiere arts institutions and performance venues.

Although talk of economic impact and downtown revitalization were key components of the panel discussion, another was the Conservatory’s pressing need for more space. The current facility was built for 300 people. The Conservatory has 537 students today.

“Our faculty and our students are exquisite. Our facilities are not,” Witte said.

During the question and answer session, talk turned toward the Downtown Arts Campus’ impact on UMKC’s current campuses. One questioner expressed a desire to keep the Conservatory on the Volker Campus.

Witte said the Conservatory is committed to continuing to hold regular students performances on the Volker Campus, even after a move. He also encouraged the idea that Kansas City is UMKC’s true campus.

 “The city is our campus. We’re an urban campus,” Witte said.

Another question addressed the role that the Kansas City Art Institute might play in the Downtown Arts Campus. Chandra responded that KCAI is considering moving its graduate – not undergraduate program – downtown.

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“Our faculty and our students are exquisite. Our facilities are not.”

Peter Witte
Dean of Conservatory of Music and Dance